Machine Head: Through the Ashes of Empires (2003)

Through the Ashes of Empires, released on December 16, 2003, by Roadrunner Records, marks Machine Head’s return to their groove and thrash metal roots after two heavily criticized albums. Notably produced by Robb Flynn, the album features Phil Demmel’s impactful return, bringing revitalized guitar work. A fun fact: despite a rocky start with a DIY approach due to being unsigned in the US, the album’s success led to Machine Head re-signing with Roadrunner in the US, setting the stage for their subsequent hit, The Blackening.

Machine Head: Through the Ashes of Empires (2003) album artwork

Track Listing

  1. Imperium
  2. Bite the Bullet
  3. Left Unfinished
  4. Elegy
  5. In the Presence of My Enemies
  6. Days Turn Blue to Gray
  7. Vim
  8. All Falls Down
  9. Wipe the Tears
  10. Descend the Shades of Night

Album length: 53:09

Music genre

Thrash metal, Groove metal

The Lineup for the Album

  • Robb Flynn: lead vocals, rhythm guitar
  • Adam Duce: bass, backing vocals
  • Phil Demmel: lead guitar
  • Dave McClain: drums

Release Date

December 16, 2003

Record Label

Roadrunner Records

Recording Date

June 16 - July 21, 2003

Recording Studio

Sharkbite Studios (Oakland, California)

Produced by

Robb Flynn

Album Themes/Concept

Personal Struggle and Resilience: The album delves deeply into personal struggles and the resilience needed to overcome them. Tracks like “Imperium” and “Left Unfinished” reflect Robb Flynn’s personal battles, dealing with issues such as betrayal, self-doubt, and inner turmoil. The lyrics often convey a sense of empowerment and the determination to rise above adversities​.

Social and Political Commentary: Several songs on the album address broader societal and political issues. For instance, “Days Turn Blue to Gray” deals with the impact of family strife and the emotional scars it leaves behind. The album as a whole can be seen as a commentary on the state of society and the personal impacts of broader social issues​.

Themes of Redemption and Transformation: Redemption and transformation are central themes, particularly evident in tracks like “Wipe the Tears” and “Descend the Shades of Night.” These songs explore the journey from darkness to light, from despair to hope, highlighting the possibility of personal growth and change​.

Reflection on Past Experiences: The lyrics often reflect on past experiences, both personal and collective. “Elegy” and “In the Presence of My Enemies” look back at past conflicts and struggles, offering a contemplative take on lessons learned and the scars left behind. This reflective nature adds depth to the album’s narrative, resonating with listeners who have faced similar challenges​.

Confrontation and Defiance: Confrontation and defiance are prevalent throughout the album, particularly in songs like “Bite the Bullet” and “Vim.” These tracks are characterized by their aggressive tone and rebellious spirit, challenging both personal and societal adversaries. This defiant attitude is a hallmark of Machine Head’s style, appealing to metalheads who appreciate music that pushes back against oppression and hardship.

Album Mood

Aggressive and Intense: The album is characterized by an aggressive and intense mood, with powerful riffs, driving rhythms, and Robb Flynn’s commanding vocals. Songs like “Imperium” and “Bite the Bullet” exemplify this energy, delivering a relentless auditory assault that appeals to metalheads who crave high-octane music​​.

Dark and Brooding: There is a dark and brooding atmosphere throughout the album, reflected in the lyrical themes and the heavy, somber tones of the music. Tracks like “Left Unfinished” and “Days Turn Blue to Gray” delve into personal pain and societal issues, creating a somber yet compelling listening experience​.

Defiant and Rebellious: The mood of defiance and rebellion is palpable in many tracks. The lyrics often challenge societal norms and personal adversaries, embodying a spirit of resistance and strength. Songs like “Vim” and “Wipe the Tears” showcase this attitude, making the album resonate with listeners who value music that pushes back against oppression and hardship​​.

Reflective and Contemplative: Amidst the aggression, the album also offers moments of reflection and contemplation. Tracks like “Descend the Shades of Night” and “Elegy” encourage listeners to ponder past experiences and personal growth, adding a layer of depth to the overall mood​​.

Empowering and Uplifting: Despite its dark themes, the album carries an underlying sense of empowerment and resilience. The journey from struggle to strength is a recurring theme, with tracks like “Imperium” and “In the Presence of My Enemies” embodying this transformation. This empowering aspect makes the album not just a reflection of hardship but also a source of inspiration.

Album Trivia

Phil Demmel’s Return and Influence: When Machine Head was at a low point post-Supercharger, former Vio-Lence guitarist Phil Demmel joined the band during their European tour and later became a permanent member in March 2003. His return brought a significant creative spark to the band, contributing key riffs and rejuvenating the band’s dynamic. His contributions were particularly notable in tracks like “In the Presence of My Enemies” and “Seasons Wither”.

DIY Production Efforts: Struggling with label rejections, Machine Head decided to produce Through the Ashes of Empires themselves out of necessity, using their own funds. The recording sessions at Sharkbite Studios in Oakland were a critical period, with the band pouring their energy into creating an album that would revive their career.

Transformation of Key Tracks: Two of the album’s standout tracks, “Imperium” and “Descend the Shades of Night,” underwent significant transformations during their creation. “Imperium” almost didn’t make it onto the album until Robb Flynn, while battling a severe flu, finalized the track’s intro. “Descend the Shades of Night” evolved from a short Deftones-style song into an epic closer, with Flynn rewriting major parts to extend its length and depth.

Re-Signing with Roadrunner Records: The positive reception and organic buzz around the album in Europe led to Machine Head re-signing with Roadrunner Records in the US. This move was a significant milestone, allowing the band to regain their footing in the metal scene and set the stage for their subsequent album, The Blackening, which solidified their comeback.

Successful European Tour and Live Album: Machine Head’s European tour in support of Through the Ashes of Empires was highly successful, leading to sold-out shows and the recording of the live album Hellalive at Brixton Academy in London. This tour helped re-establish the band’s reputation as a formidable live act and played a crucial role in their resurgence.

Listen or Pass

This album might be for you if you…

  • Crave Aggressive and Emotional Metal: If you thrive on intense, powerful music that blends aggression with deep emotional content, Through the Ashes of Empires delivers. Tracks like “Imperium” and “Left Unfinished” combine heavy riffs with personal, introspective lyrics, making for a compelling listening experience​.
  • Appreciate a Blend of Groove and Thrash Metal: For fans of groove and thrash metal, this album marks a return to Machine Head’s roots, moving away from their nu-metal phase. The album’s sound is reminiscent of their earlier work, with punishing riffs and dynamic tempos that will resonate with fans of classic Machine Head.
  • Value Guitar-Driven Music: Phil Demmel’s return brought a revitalized energy to the band, contributing to some of the best guitar work in their discography. His riffs and solos on tracks like “In the Presence of My Enemies” and “Descend the Shades of Night” are highlights of the album.
  • Enjoy Personal and Reflective Lyrics: If you appreciate lyrics that delve into personal struggles and emotional depth, this album offers plenty. Songs like “Days Turn Blue to Gray” and “Elegy” explore themes of family, pain, and resilience, adding a layer of introspection to the heavy music.
  • Are a Long-Time Machine Head Fan: For long-time fans, this album represents a critical turning point and resurgence for the band. Understanding its place in Machine Head’s history and its role in leading to subsequent successes like The Blackening makes it a must-listen.

You might want to pass this one if you…

  • Prefer Nu-Metal Elements: If you enjoyed Machine Head’s nu-metal experimentation on albums like The Burning Red and Supercharger, you might find the return to a more traditional metal sound less appealing. Through the Ashes of Empires moves away from those influences in favor of a heavier, more aggressive style.
  • Seek Consistent Sound Throughout: The album features a mix of aggressive tracks and more mellow, introspective songs. If you prefer albums that maintain a consistent tone and style throughout, this varied approach might not suit your tastes​.
  • Are Looking for Simplistic, Hook-Driven Music: If you favor simpler, hook-driven metal, the complex arrangements and emotionally charged lyrics of this album might be too intricate. The depth and intensity of the music require attentive listening to fully appreciate​.
  • Dislike Personal and Introspective Lyrics: If you prefer metal that focuses on external themes like fantasy or abstract concepts rather than personal and introspective lyrics, the emotional content of this album might not resonate with you​.
  • Want Light-Hearted or Upbeat Metal: The themes of struggle, pain, and resilience, combined with a dark and intense atmosphere, might be too heavy for those looking for more light-hearted or upbeat metal music​.